The Age of Innocence

The Summer of Broken Stories
James Wilson
Alma: 316pp: £12.99 rrp.

Happy is England, Keats opines in his seventeenth sonnet, and after James Wilson’s novel you may ask yourself whether you would be as content to see no other verdure than its own. The Summer of Broken Stories Is his fourth novel, and a very English novel it is. And indeed, when he posts the question in his opening sentence “Its as if for years you’ve had a picture on your wall” (clunky as it is), the picture on Wilson’s wall is one of those idyll British villages, disturbed only by the sound of the postman delivering the Daily Telegraph, or the church bells tolling a quaint, sunday bank-holiday wedding.
Of course, Wilson’s story about “the cusp between innocence and knowledge, set in a long-lost English summer” does give way to something more subversive; a tale of a young nine/ten year old boy encountering the seal of his boyish, summery innocence threatened and disturbed.

It’s a coming-of-age story; a man, presumably the protagonist Mark, looking back on a summer in 50’s England. For the most part, Wilson seems to be restraining himself, and upholding the pleasant veneer, but at some points, this threatens to crack, as if the person framing the story leaks in. Here is Wilson early, on going back to fifties England,(the novel is framed in the present) where he introduces another trope of life in England – Class.

“That old chestnut Class, for instance. Yes, it’s a conscious presence here, discernible (if you know what to look for) in clothes, haircuts, posture – above all, in the way people speak. And yes, it can be mean and ugly, stunting lives. But lived, rather than seen from the outside, it isn’t straightforward: money despises poverty; poverty despises trade; spinsters in decayed country houses, and displaced ex-public schoolboys struggling to make ends meet in cottages.” (Wilson’s italics).

This is the story of Mark who in one summer encounters Aubrey Hillyard, a conspicuous presence, living inside an abandoned railway carriage, on the outskirts of the village. Aubrey is treated with suspicion by other residents, and Mark is warned away from him by his parents, and other authoritative sources such as the police. Aubrey, his parents, a long with a new-found friendship in a girl – Lou – all appear to unsettle Mark’s little childhood bubble. Mark’s hometown could be renamed the ‘Macrosystem’, threatened to be pierced, as a small, yet formidable cast of characters, in a minimalist setting, Mark’s movements (and the camera rarely diverts from Mark), centre around his home, his village. The furthest he strays is Aubrey’s hideout, which is forbidden.

On meeting Aubrey, It becomes a process of exchange; the stories in the title is plural, and the notion of being broken and fragmented recurs, as Aubrey and Mark tell each other of their inventions. Aubrey is engaged in a novel about ‘The Brain’, an omniscient, omnipresent network, that spies on citizens through the imminent invention of the television. Who knew the extent that screens and televisions would pervade our lives, and it is of course, the great benefit of setting a story in the past that we can moralise on it. “All this moving around at breakneck speed. Sending messages, images, words, more and more of them, into every corner of the globe.” And indeed, how they do (and to call The Brain Orwellian would be a disservice to Orwell and to Wilson). Aubrey is typically castigated and warned away from, but in exchange for this, he wants Mark’s stories, which Mark has readily available thanks to his train-set; a world where Mark is in charge of, where he escapes any chaos in his living world, by projecting order into his make-believe world of ‘Peveril on the Swift’ and his Dickensian sound characters (‘Mr and Mrs Makepeace).

The story is about stories, and not in self-referential, postmodern sense. What is Mark doing with his stories? Escaping, but also restoring order, and it seems that it’s the only salvage Mark has as he battles the burgeoning world of feelings and responsibilities. The metaphors imposed in childhood that become metaphysical die hard, no matter how old and learned we get, and the need to conform,and obey laws, threatens to override all of our decisions.
““So,” says Hillyard. “What’s the consensus?”
“What’s the what?” says Lou.
She shakes her head.
“It means the agreed opinion about something.””
The consensus is so overriding we don’t know what it is, we’re unconscious of it, and this naturally is passed down from generations above, by those who never broke from it themselves. And here is Aubrey, seemingly trying to liberate them from that. Aubrey is not necessarily as prophetic as he seems to be, and the fate of Aubrey however is suitable. Not to give anything away, fans of Mad Men, may recognise a contemporary in him, and Mark may feel like one of the short-changed clients, or even consumers.

In terms of contemporaries to Wilson, there are similarities in a book reviewed on here a couple of years ago by Andrew Lovett (Everlasting Lane, 2013), dealing with that passageway in childhood, to teenhood. And I mean this as a sincere compliment, but the Lego Movie (2014), has discernible parallels for those who’ve seen it (and if you haven’t – do) in terms of how we deal from top-down influences in our own worlds that we never realise the power of. Wilson does have a neat turn of phrase, evocative of Graham Swift, but there are too many exclamatives; too many italics for emphasis that disrupt the rhythm, and that force you to tax over. Wilson could be forgiven for imparting Mark with qualifiers, because Mark is, qualifying and evaluating his reality, but I did lose count of the amount of times a part of Mark’s body ‘tingled’. Nevertheless, there is a charm to the story, which is layering over a subversive undertone, which the title of the novel enmeshes.

Don’t be carried away by the story of the Brain, but listen to the story of Mark, and listen to your own stories. Like Keats, you “may sometimes feel a languishment/for skies Italian, and an inward groan/ To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,” but often we cannot escape in the physical sense, so we have to make-do and we make-believe – it is the essence of art and of life.

The Summer of Broken Stories is out now. Thanks to Alma for providing a review copy.